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Breaking A Song Apart, Note By Note

A young Phil Elverum, circa late '90s. (WikiCommons)

The Song Exploder podcast tells the story of songs by breaking them into their pieces and letting you hear how they were built.

Homepage photo: Pat Castalado/WikiCommons

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The podcast Song Exploder does pretty much what its name suggests. Musicians break apart songs so you can hear the pieces - how they were imagined, created and built into a composition. Song Exploder's producer, Hrishi Hirway, has adapted one of his podcast episodes for us. It's about a song from 2001 called "I Want Wind To Blow." Here's a little excerpt. Listen closely for the mix of vocals and instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

THE MICROPHONES: I want wind...

SIEGEL: The musician who created this song worked alone in a recording studio. He played all the instruments himself and he put the pieces together. To show you how, he takes us back to the beginning.

PHIL ELVERUM: My name's Phil Elverum. And I made a bunch of records under the name The Microphones. And now I make records under the name Mount Eerie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: I remember writing this song in Philadelphia mid-tour in my friend Mira's parents' upstairs bedroom. I just have a distinct memory of waking up, noodling around in the morning and coming up with a melody of like twang twang twang. It just happened. Sometimes it just comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: This song is kind of an exception because customarily I don't have a song when I start recording, you know. It's based on experimentation in the studio. And I had probably - had played a version of it a few times on that tour. So I came home with this preformed thing.

When I recorded it, I decided to break it down into just the low Gs on one track and then the higher melody on another track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: So I was kind of figuring out it would sound unnatural in a way but interesting. So that's kind of what I was doing with this guitar part. I've always been really into utilizing the stereo spectrum. Music comes out in stereo. People listen to music in stereo. There's a lot of opportunity there to play with special stuff and two speakers. There's two speakers everywhere. It's amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: I used to have a musical group with a girlfriend called The Thunderclouds. It was like a Beach Boys cover band. And we would just figure out Beach Boy songs - break 'em into two-part harmonies. And, you know, we played a couple of shows around Olympia. It was very fun.

So the first words in the song are the thunderclouds broke up, which is about us breaking up as a couple and also about the changing weather. You know, it's multiple levels of meaning about weather being a metaphor for my emotions. That was kind of what all my songs were about back then and arguably still are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

THE MICROPHONES: (Singing) The thunderclouds broke up. And the rain dried up. The lightning lit up. The clacking shutters just shut up.

ELVERUM: And then there's three other vocal tracks which only come in on these like few words that make this kind of elongated chord.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

THE MICROPHONES: (Singing) I want wind to blow.

ELVERUM: I had this hollow-body electric guitar - this Kay guitar. I was aiming for basically the sound of water.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: You can hear the pick sound almost. I mic'd the strings as well as an amp. Two different delay rates on the right side and the left side sort of create this disorienting watery waves hitting each other effect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

THE MICROPHONES: (Singing) There's no ship on my sea.

ELVERUM: That's the last line I sing. It's a go-out-to-sea with the instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNARE DRUM BEING SCRAPED)

ELVERUM: This recording is made alone in the studio scraping the bottom of a snare drum. I heard that sound first in my head. And I was like I need this like weird kind of scrape. without thinking about snare or thinking about whatever it was that could make it. And then I'll look around the studio. Where can I find those sounds in this room?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

THE MICROPHONES: (Singing) There's no hope for me. I've been set free. There's no breeze. There's no ship on my sea.

ELVERUM: I'm playing all the instruments here, which leads to a lot of logistical complications - running back and forth to hit the record button. This song is about tumultuous feelings. This song sort of builds and morphs into this explosion. And I feel like that's maybe where the power of this song comes from is this tension that is building for the whole thing. There's this like pulse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: And finally there's this release.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: You know, there's just two piano tracks. But I put the mic like 50 feet away and just like slammed the notes down - let them resonate in the room so they feel huge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

ELVERUM: I remember discovering that I loved recording - that breakthrough when I was in high school getting to record for the first time. We had a simple 8-track studio set up in the record store where I worked. And just staying after work and experimenting, realizing what was possible with recording - that's why my project was called The Microphones at first. Because it wasn't even songs really. It was just sound.

The early songs were literally about recording - about gear. Sort of in a metaphorical way - like my heart is the preamp or whatever. You know, I was in high school, so lay off, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT WIND TO BLOW")

SIEGEL: Musician Phil Elverum talking about his 2001 song "I Want Wind To Blow." It came to us from the podcast Song Exploder, produced by Hrishi Hirway. You can hear the full episode and song and find more episodes of Song Exploder on the podcast network maximumfun.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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